The entrenched regimes of the Middle East have been falling like dominos this year. Across the region, rulers once thought to be invincible have been toppled, backed into corners and threatened by a wave of public discontent and political turmoil. Osama bin Laden’s death marks yet another demise of one of the region’s most important and enduring political leaders.David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy writes that this changing of the guard is a watershed moment for the Middle East, as the old lions give way to a new – and still unknown – generation of leaders.
Here’s a breakdown of the political shakeup:
Tunisia: President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali led Tunisia for 23 years before he was forced to step down in January, amid a massive wave of protests. The popular uprising – triggered by high youth unemployment and widespread government corruption – is credited with sparking the wave of Arab Spring revolts that have since engulfed the Middle East.
Egypt: A massive popular revolt ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, ending 30-years of autocratic rule and political repression. The country is now run by an interim military government and plans to hold parliamentary elections in September.
Yemen: Months of unrest have effectively ended the 33-year rule of President Al Abdullah Saleh. Saleh – the first-ever president of the unified Yemeni state – has agreed to step down this year but has so avoided setting a departure date.
Libya: Civil war erupted in Libya following the Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s violent crackdown against anti-government protesters in February. It is premature to predict that Qaddafi – the region’s longest-serving ruler – will be overthrown but a NATO bombing campaign has pushed the Brother Leader into a corner. Qaddafi has led Libya for 42 years.
Syria: Widespread protests have called for the end of the Assad regime, which has been in power since 1971, first under President Hafez al-Assad and then under his son, current President Bashar al-Assad. A brutal government crackdown has so far kept Assad in power but many believe Syria is headed for civil war.
Bahrain: An uprising by the kingdom’s Shia majority population represents a significant threat to Bahrain’s Sunni royal family, which has ruled the tiny country for more than 200 years. The monarchy is likely to remain in power, but the conflict has become a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Al Qaeda: Although not a head of state, Osama bin Laden was one of the Middle East’s most significant political and spiritual leaders and the world’s most wanted terrorist. His death during Monday’s U.S. raid in Pakistan marks the end of his 25-year leadership of the global jihadist network.
Saudi Arabia: The Saudi royal family does not appear to face any immediate threat to its power, the age of its rulers has raised major concerns about the kingdom’s future leadership. King Abdullah is nearly 87 years old and his heir apparent is 83.
It is not yet clear who will rise up to fill the void left by the the old guard, Rothkopf notes, but it is almost certain that the sea change will not produce uniform results. Navigating the new political landscape will present serious challenges, but also opportunities for those smart enough to use new, more flexible, approach.